Jay-Z: 4:44 ALBUM REVIEW

You’ve probably heard a little bit about the life and times of the one and only Jay-Z since that incident in the elevator a handful of years ago.  Ever since the rap statesmen’s debut “Reasonable Doubt,” he’s talked up his game with the ladies and unfortunately this continued into his relationship with Beyoncé which of course inspired the earth-shattering Lemonade last year.  4:44 features Jay talking openly about all of it and more, even reaching back to the unhealthy start of the pair’s relationship.

Recorded seemingly within a stretch of a couple weeks leading into its release date—those Al Sharpton selfies that he references happened less than 2 weeks prior—the album is simple.  No I.D. throws together a reliable collection of soul-sampling beats and Jay raps his ass off for a quick 37 minutes, yielding an impeccable change of pace from the not-so-effortless blemish of an album Magna Carta Holy Grail.  Jay is a man with endless resources and to hear him just stick to his roots makes for a fantastic late-career highlight in a career full of victory.

The heart of the album lies in the title track—the fifth song in the track-listing.  Jay supposedly woke up in the middle of the night and wrote out everything he needed to say to his wife and he really holds nothing back.  Beyond divulging the threats he’s posed to his family and kids with his antics: “I apologize, often womanize,” Jay even dives into his immature mistakes throughout the relationship: “I said ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready.”

This is Jay-Z at his most mature and raw and real, there are no excuses, no half assed apologies, Jay takes a step back and admits the problems he’s caused and promises to make a change for the future.  With the sample “Never gonna treat you like I should” from Hannah Williams sharply looming in the background, the track is truly a big emotional moment.

Surrounding the centerpiece are the album’s best standout tracks.  In the four slot, Jay talks about seeing through the fakeness into one’s eyes with a catchy-as-hell Frank Ocean chorus.  Sixth yields an empowering, forceful number with harmonized Beyoncé samples complementing Jay’s case for black people and culture being stronger together than apart.  “And old ni**as stop actin’ brand new like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too,” is a personal favorite line.

Following that is likely the best feature on the project from Damien Marley as Jay reclaims his territory in the rap game.  These songs aren’t necessarily as huge and radio friendly as “Empire State of Mind,” but between the killer bars and the fun hooks and sampling, they’re just as addicting.

Besides the string of killer tracks, Jay remains reliably solid.  “Smile” talks up the life of Jay’s mom, who had kids living as a closeted lesbian.  Again, Jay is divulging parts of his life that I don’t think he necessarily would’ve in the past, making for a deep emotional work.  “The Story of OJ” talks about how no matter the circumstances black people in the United States, they’re still not treated equally: “Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a/Still ni**a.” “Legacy” serves as a great send of as well, with Jay-Z talking about how he wants to combat the gatekeepers by setting his kids up with money to support their dreams.  I’ve found myself singing back some of the choruses of the hits from the middle of the album, but the warm soul sound of the more laid back tracks, makes for a rewarding front to back experience.

Here and there Jay does show his age in a bad way: “That’s like sayin’ I’m the tallest midget/Wait, that ain’t politically correct.” Jokes about political correctness aren’t my cup of tea and this just feels a bit unnecessary.  Also, the chorus of “Moonlight” is a bit puzzling. “We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose” is a great start and commentary about how even when black greatness occurs, something gets messed up in the reward process, but then he talks about the younger generation of rappers: “Y’all got the same fuckin’ flows/I don’t know who is who.” The proximity between the monotony of the whiteness of reward shows and the monotony of triplet flow runs a bit too close to comparison, especially for the guy who just said “nobody wins when the family feuds.”

Besides a few luke-warm lyrical moments, however, the album remains truly fantastic.  Jay-Z never lost his ability to rap—obviously—but this is the most raw he’s felt in a while.  It’s great to see an artist a bit past his prime still laying it all out on the line.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

On the Monthly: June 2017

Kelly Lee Owens-Kelly Lee Owens

“taps into ambient and drone traditions while also delivering a constant stream of danceable bass lines and bouncy synth arpeggiations.”

Full Review

Lorde-Melodrama

“Lorde took a while to come back, but the last four years have been all growth and her empire is just beginning.”

Full Review

SZA-Ctrl

“SZA pinpoints relatability while avoiding tired cliché”

Full Review

Clark-Death Peak

“a great deal of variety in the project and the logical march from light to mean makes it digestible and addicting”

Full Review

Vince Staples-Big Fish Theory

“Staples maintains his usual drawl speech and coy attitude as huge, biting electronic-influenced beats explode beneath him and hooks talk up his come up, moving from little pond problems to ‘countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.'”

Full Review

Kara-Lis Coverdale-GRAFTS

“‘Grafts’ is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.”

Full Review

 

Lorde-Melodrama QUICK 100

another quick cult mtl review, big candidate for pop AOTY

“Pure Heroine” was certainly an inspiring moment for the music world. A 16-year-old New Zealander took over the world singing about wealth and consumption with freaky backing vocals and a general alternative aura.  Singing over chugging guitars, pounding drums, and fun synth-horn lines, “Melodrama” is Lorde’s unabashed pop anthem record in all the right ways.  Her choruses are powerful as ever, perfectly capturing relatable emotional strife, with those backing vocals appearing here and there over a much more lush, orchestral landscape.  Lorde took a while to come back, but the last four years have been all growth and her empire is just beginning.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

SZA-Ctrl: QUICK 100

hey wrote this for cult mtl

 

On “Ctrl,” SZA provides a much more focused sound than her past releases with a slew of commanding vocal performances falling over live-leaning alternative R&B instrumentation. The work feels a bit like one continuous melody, which can have its drawbacks—the choruses aren’t necessarily for the ages—but, her acrobatic melodies provide endless expression as she tackles the confusion of the “20 somethings.”  From songs about being the other woman, to having a partner lose interest, to anxiety over wasted youth, SZA pinpoints relatability while avoiding tired cliché.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Kara-Lis Coverdale-Grafts: Album Review

Montrealer Kara-Lis Coverdale has an impeccable ear for ambient music and sound composition.  At 22-minutes, “Grafts” is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.  Housing three different designs—“2C,” “Fluttering,” and “Moments in Love”—the work has just enough time to develop each idea to its fullest extent before the next idea gradually gels into place over the course of a one or two minute transition period.  The road map is logical and Coverdale’s unbelievable melodic sense nails the execution.

“2C” opens with a church-like aura.  The droney, keyboard undertones have the clicking of the keys sound of an old organ as more unclear source material plays around with a simple melodic loop in the high-range atop a lush pillow of sound. Coverdale has some pauses in the beginning phrases to immediately develop the sonic environment.  Eventually, less predictable plucks of melodic sound play around as the first melodic source finds a groove-like state pulsing between two or three notes with swaths of harp-like sound adding more ambiance.

“Fluttering” maintains some of the undertones, but also builds a circular storm of melodic ideas above the slightly less brooding pillow of backgrounds. There’s the crystals of big pulsing sound; the fluttering textures of electronics; and again harp-like rotating—it’s a bit more top-heavy than the first piece and more short lived but it’s within the same sphere for sure.

The final section is a more typical aquatic, ambient environment with a grace of the church-like hum of the beginning of the album.  There’s a slowly arching keyboard sound in a relentlessly subdued space.  The detailing is impeccable.  For instance, there’s an audible shift in white noise around the start of each background loop—almost as if the room noise changes.  Also, the piece finds a bit of tension in a super soft, pulsing industrial sound that remains hidden in the background.  As opposed to the second piece playing with the balance of for and background, this one brings everything down and forces the listener to find tiny details within the mix.

The project finds a certain singularity.  Restarting “Grafts” at the end is logical, as if the spirit of the initial melodic idea was beneath the surface the whole time.  Part of this cohesion comes from the brilliant transition moments as the formal sections of the piece come to a close. Around 6:22, “Fluttering” offers its first sentiments before the slightly more formal 8-minute time slot. Coverdale begins to run the whole groove-state of the first section of the piece through a fade out and eventually through a high-pass (?) filter as spastic flutters of harp and electronic noise play around in the foreground.

Here, there’s a complete stop in movement around 7:54, but in the case of “Moments in Love,” the transition is even less pronounced. It almost feels like the high-melodies of “Flutter” fade out for 3 or 4 minutes and at around 12:30, the final wandering melodic idea begins to take shape.  Both of these transition point make the project ridiculously cohesive, while also turning into a slightly new direction.

Coverdale is certainly a fresh voice in ambient music. There’s traditional aesthetics in the mix, but she looks forward with a particularly lively approach to musical phrase and instrumental mixing. A return to a more “full-length” format is likely and she’s sure to amaze, but these 22 minutes are nearly flawless and impossible to put down.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Classic Album of the Week: Siouxsie and the Banshees-Juju

1978’s “The Scream” saw an insane amount of potential in the punky-groove realm with barren drum grooves and simple, quirky guitar loops complementing a huge lead singer with shocking make-up and a wild melodic sense.  A new icon was born, but outside the UK, she wouldn’t be influential for a while.

Considering the rise of bands today like Ought, Preoccupations, and Priests; the rap love of post-punk from Danny Brown and Vince Staples; and the even more direct influence of Slowdive—a band named after a Siouxsie Sue tune—it’s clear that the movement had a huge impact and the Banshees were an integral part of post-punk’s aura.

Looking back on their career, they were consistent.  They released albums yearly after their debut, each time adding a bit more practice onto their foundation and even exploring some electronics on the insanely ahead of its time track “Red Light.”

As a whole, I would say the band is more influential and iconic than their albums and Siouxsie Sue would be a figure of goth, new-wave, and post-punk based on a handful of tracks, covers, and her ridiculously good stage-presence rather than having a universally-loved “Illmatic,” but to this day 1981’s “Juju” remains a measured, consistent post-punk masterpiece that set the tone for a decade.

Budgie’s cavernous drums and John McGeoch’s layered guitar work are the first big things that stick out when considering the band’s sonic development.  “Spellbound” finds a driving groove with a combination of jangling guitar strumming and anticipatory guitar arpeggiation.

The drums stick out a bit more on “Into the Night” where traditional Banshees circular tom patterns meet a new-found depth.  “Voodoo Dolly,” the seven-minute jam that closes out the album, sees distant, screams of guitar noise and pounding drums giving new life to Sue’s strained chorus.

Sue keeps a bit of her old self.  With an infectious-as-hell “trick or treat, the bitter and the sweet” chorus, “Halloween” is the same blunt lyricism that made tracks like “Carcass” so loveable, but there’s also some slightly more developed dark imagery that would influence the many goth-bands to come.  “Night Shift,” for instance, opens with sparse bass lines, before a chugging demeanor sets in.  Singing about the “Night Shift sisters” (prostitutes), Sue pains a rather dire picture: “The cold marble slab submits at my feet/With a neat dissection/Looking so sweet to me.”

Siouxsie Sue was an icon for a lot of people.  In terms of album delivery, “Juju” saw her at her best and it remains her band’s most rewarding statement to date.

Vince Staples-Big Fish Theory: ALBUM REVIEW

Vince Staples’s persona is perhaps most well explained by his case for pandas as his favourite animal: “He thinks they all wanna die. It’s true that zookeepers often have to force them to procreate. Vince cites that—and the fact they just look so sad—as evidence they hate being alive. They’re his favourite animal.”  The world is dark and terrible, but Staples also sounds like he’s half playing around all the time as if the concept of thinking the world is gross is “corny”—one of his most used words.  On “Big Fish Theory,” Staples maintains his usual drawl speech and coy attitude as huge, biting electronic-influenced beats explode beneath him and hooks talk up his come up, moving from little pond problems to “countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.”

The album opens in murky territory with whistling wind and sparse electronic melody.  Vince uses a dog-eat-dog type metaphor with “Crabs in a Bucket” to discuss the ruthless world of underground rap shows.  As becomes common on the record, he tosses in a line about the black-entrepreneur experience in the United States: “Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play/They don’t ever want to see the black man eat,” but he hasn’t yet reached the “bitch I’m going all in” snarl of the back half of the record. “Big Fish” sees Staples lock into first gear.  He still talks about getting past the little-town problems of his neighborhood, but as the hollow bass rolls through and Juicy J recites the boasting, robotic hook, the album alludes to a more commanding attitude.

An interlude follows to keep things under control, but Staples pops out some more fierce bars over the dance-vibe of “Love Can Be…”  Admittedly, his first verse—which follows a cheeky, fast-paced Kilo Kish verse and a rather violent build-up of electronic static—is a bit underwhelming.  For a three-minute track, the wait for a pummeling set of bars is a bit long, but after spouting off some quick phrases, Staples commands that biting electronic line with a verse about choosing money over women.  Again, this whole “chase a check never chase a bitch” attitude seems a bit half-sarcastic considering that Staples doesn’t exactly seem to be all that interested in wealth.  There’s just always some sense of Staples thinking all this rap shit is ridiculous while falling into certain tropes—it makes the record fun to sit with and reinterpret.

“745” continues the discussion of women in his life and the desires he was fed as a child and how they’ve led him down the wrong road: “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs/All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss… All my life pretty women done told me lies.”  Considering his later lyric “This is for my future baby mama/Hope your skin is black as midnight,” there seems to be an element of race involved: “Eyes can’t hide your hate for me/Maybe you was made for the Maybelline.”  Brands like Maybelline have told him to desire rich white models for his whole life, but at the end of the day he can’t relate to these people and they’ve wronged him in the past.

After another quick interlude, the album starts a continuous string of savage.  Produced by PC-music weirdo SOPHIE, “Yeah Right” hits as hard as just about any rap track has this year with a huge distorted 808. Vince offers a series of questions “Do the trap jump? Is the plug right? Got your head right?… Pretty woman wanna slit the wrist/Pretty woman wanna be a rich man’s bitch” then announces they’re full of shit with the repetitive chorus of “yeah right.” Kendrick Lamar then shows up for a traditional “I can put rappers on life-support/everyone wants to kill me” feature. It bangs.  Some other highlights include the boiling bass-line of “BagBak,” the percussive energy of “Homage,” and the sludgy industry of “SAMO.”

Vince Staples has his cards in the right place. With voices like Stormzy and Skepta starting to gain traction in the US, Staples seems to be incorporating a bit of UK-grime influence, while also wearing his American rap influences on his sleeve.  “745” sounds like an electronic version of some west coast rap slow-jam from the 90s and his bars could seem fit just about anywhere as quick-tempo jams also find place on the record.  His songwriting is like punk-rock jabs rather than the lengthy jazz freak-outs of Kendrick Lamar or the wacky post-punk fusions of Danny Brown, but with the help of producers SOPHIE, Flume, Ray Brady, and Zack Sekoff, Staples combines new and old to look to the future.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10